Bewilderment by Richard Powers: A review

 

I loved Robin Byrne, the child at the center of Richard Powers' new book, his first since the highly acclaimed The Overstory. When we meet Robin, he is eight years old and about to turn nine and already he is in serious trouble with the world. Two years earlier, his adored mother, Alys, an environmental activist died in a car crash. Robin and his father Theo who is the narrator of the book are still in mourning. 

One day at school Robin's best (and only) friend tells him that when his mother swerved to avoid hitting an animal in the road and hit a tree instead that she actually committed suicide. Angry and distraught, Robin hits him with his thermos and breaks his cheekbone. He avoids expulsion but the school insists that his father get help for him. Already he has been evaluated by several doctors because of his inability to control his rages. They've come back with a variety of potential diagnoses: Asperger's, OCD, or ADHD. One doctor tells his father that Robin is "on the spectrum." Theo opines, "We are all 'on the spectrum.' That's what a spectrum is." The doctors and the school authorities are unanimous in believing that Robin should be medicated. Theo, a university astrophysicist, refuses their advice: "He's nine years old! His brain is still developing."

Nevertheless, it is clear as Robin's behavior has become increasingly erratic and rageful that his father must do something. His first response is to take him on a wilderness trip. They spend their time exploring rivers and forests and sleeping under the stars and as long as they are there Robin is happy and well-adjusted. He is his mother's own son and is attuned to all of Nature's entities. His empathy embraces them all. But he can't stay in the wilderness. He has to go back to school and his father has to go back to his job. The world they return to is completely inhospitable for a child who is "different."

Theo is utterly out of his depth as a parent. He says in his narration, "I could no more raise a child than I could speak Swahili." In something approaching desperation, he contacts a scientist who is experimenting with a behavior modification technique called Decoded Neurofeedback. Before her death, his wife had participated in the experiment as a test subject and her mental landscape as recorded during her participation is still available. The decision is made to allow Robin to be a test subject and to use the technology to get closer to his dead mother's mind in the hope that it will advance his mental capacity and give him greater self control. The experiment succeeds beyond Theo's wildest hopes. For what happens next, well, you'll just have to read the book.

This book is apparently a reworking of Daniel Keye's famous sci-fi novel Flowers For Algernon. Unfortunately, I haven't read that book, but Theo's narration points out the similarities between Decoded Neurofeedback and the experimental technology in that book that enhances the mental capacity of a mouse first and later of a man with low IQ. 

The action of this book takes place in a dystopian near future when environmental collapse is accelerating and democracy is falling apart. The country is led by an autocratic ignoramus who sounds very much like our most recent former president. It's a country where armed private militias patrol for "unspecified foreign invaders." This is all happening in the background but what we get in the foreground is the somewhat claustrophobic relationship between Theo and Robin. The dramatic focus never wavers from this relationship with the result that, at some point, it all begins to feel a bit suffocating. Powers is at his best when describing the great American outdoors or the vastness of the universe and the possibilty of life on extrasolar planets. It is in these descriptions that the book is most expansive and lyrical. There is a lot to like about the book, even though I felt that it did not quite reach the heights of The Overstory.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. this really sounds like a winner... i liked Keyes book a lot; it's not very long, but quite memorable and this one has the same sort of appeal, it seems...

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    1. That seems to be the case. Evidently, the Keyes book inspired this one.

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  2. Richard Powers has been one of my favorite writers since I read The Gold Bug Variations in the 90s. Gold Bug is an intricate book that combines mystery, music, and science with a double love story across time.

    You should read Flowers for Algernon now that you've read Bewilderment.

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    1. He is a wonderful writer, especially in his descriptions and his appreciation of Nature. The Overstory is truly one of my all-time favorite novels. I haven't read The Gold Bug Variations but now it is on my list, as is Flowers for Algernon.

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  3. I've been seeing this book mentioned and still not sure I want to read it right now. The comparison to Flowers for Algernon worries me a little. I wonder how rereading that after all these years would affect me? Would it hold up?

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    1. I do plan to read Flowers for Algernon soon. I'll be interested to see the similarities between the two books.

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  4. I had to read Flowers for Algernon in school and thought it was a really sad story. I like the sound of this novel, and of Robin and his dad, but it's not a sad ending one, is it?

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    1. I don't want to be a spoiler so I really can't say. If you decide to read it, you be the judge.

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  5. I enjoyed this especially the father/son aspect. I have the Overstory but, I have not read it yet.

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    1. The father and son were both interesting characters and, as I stated up front, I absolutely loved Robin.

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  6. Robin sounds like one heck of a character, and your review makes me want to read this one even more than I already did. Unfortunately, it looks as if I'm going to be on the library hold list a whole lot longer than I was hoping. Way back...and not moving up much at all.

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    1. Robin is a misfit. I think that's what appealed to me. I'm not surprised that the book is very popular with library users.

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  7. Yeah I wonder if I should read Flowers for Algernon ... I'm looking forward to this book and so I'm glad you liked it. So the relationship of father/son is over the top?

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    1. The narrative is completely focused on that relationship pretty much to the exclusion of any outside influences. That's what I meant by the relationship sometimes feeling a bit claustrophobic.

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